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An ultra runner’s view of coronavirus in Italy

In Naples, there are Italian flags hanging from windows, hand painted signs with a rainbow and the words “andra tutto bene” or “it will be all right.”

Alyssa Clark, an American ultra runner who is currently stationed there with her husband, paints a stark contrast of Italy before the coronavirus struck with a vengeance and now.

“Life here, particularly in Naples, is beautifully chaotic,” Clark says. “There are always people out at restaurants, bars, cafes, town centers, chatting and enjoying each other's company. The place buzzes with human connection as that is a fundamental part of Italian culture. The nonnas (grandmothers) sit out on the porches, watching the hustle and bustle, while the nonnos (grandfathers) sit at the cafes, smoking and enjoying a midday aperitif. We were just coming into the warmer season, so flowers and trees are all budding and the seasonal vegetables are changing to our warm weather options. Southern Italians love warm weather and the excitement for summer days on the beach and rooftop parties and spritz is palpable.”

But now, the streets are virtually empty. Only hospitals, grocery stores and pharmacies are open. People who venture outside wear masks and gloves, and keep their distance from others.

“If you accidentally come too close to someone, it feels like an invasion and something of which to feel ashamed,” she says. “Police roam the roads setting up barricades and checkpoints as we are only allowed to travel to and from work, the hospital or grocery store. We must carry documents to justify our movements and if we are found to be lying, we can be fined, arrested and are automatically placed into 14 day self-quarantine. This includes going out to exercise. We are not allowed to go outside for pleasure, only to walk your dog if you have one.”

Still, the community finds ways to come together.

“People come out on their balconies to sing and chat with their neighbors from afar. The love of community is still so strong even through the physical separation.”

The birth of a challenge

Clark and her husband, Codi, were due to leave their two-year tour this May but, of course, that is uncertain. “It was very exciting,” she says of the initial move. “Being given the chance to run in the European ultra circuit has been a life-changing opportunity and has humbled me over and over.”

Unlike other athletes confined to their homes, Clark has a treadmill at her home and is allowed to run on one of the two American military bases in Italy.

“My husband and I realized it is probably the only place in Italy where it is legal to run outside,” she explains. “It is 2.7 miles all the way around but there is also a track in one corner and lots of fun little side streets. I am so grateful to have that, but try to limit my use of it as I want other people to feel comfortable running there as well and not take up too much space.”

She had been training for the Istria 100 before it was postponed. So she turned the disappointment into her own personal #26againstcorona project.

“On my training schedule I had a four-hour run,” she recalls. “I asked my coach if I could keep the four-hour run on the schedule, even if it would be on a treadmill. It was exciting to me to think of running a marathon in that time as a marathon always feels special to me to complete.”

And thus the #26againstcorona project came to fruition.

Clark introduced it on March 31 on her Facebook page, writing, “I’ve set myself the challenge of running a marathon every day until the world has healed enough for us to be released from isolation. This means almost every marathon will be on a treadmill, but I see this as a gift I get to run at all.”

She challenges her friends, followers and others to do their own daily version of 26 — whether that be reps, minutes, seconds of whatever.

“I was so excited by the marathon, it gave me something to look forward to throughout the week rather than think about another day in lockdown,” she says. “I hoped others would feel the same and perhaps having something to look forward to on the weekend would be a pick up. It also felt powerful to think of people all over the world, participating in an event to promote positive thinking and a healthy act.”

On April 9, she completed her 10th in 10 days.

“I am feeling stronger and stronger every day,” she says, noting that if she would stop if she starts to feel sick or suffers an injury. “My hope by doing these marathons is to encourage others to stay positive and continue to move forward every day until we are free. Every step takes us closer to a healthy world.”

Running saved her life

Clark has come a long way from when she hated running as a child. But at age 10, she read “Ultramarathon Man” by Dean Karnazes. “Then I knew someday I was going to run an ultra.”

Almost immediately, running proved beneficial.

Just before entering middle school, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that affects the digestive system. She turned to “running as a place of freedom and strength against the disease.”

Then at age 14, the disease became life-threatening. She had emergency surgery to remove her colon and had a temporary ileostomy for three months before undergoing a second surgery to reverse it.

“Running was my companion throughout the illness. It was my way to prove to myself I was not sick.”

After recovery, she continued as a competitive cross-country skier and began to do five-plus hour training runs on the trails of New England while in high school. “I fell in love with these runs and the journeys I would go on when I was out there,” she recalls. “My junior year of college I promised myself I would run a marathon when I graduated. As is typical of my nature, I skipped the marathon and went straight into a 50K. Ever since then I have found such love and freedom on the trails I just can’t stop.”

In Italy, she has performed well, taking third at the 73K Chianti Trail Ultra in March 2019 and following that up with a runner-up at the Tuscany Crossing 100K the following month.

A wise move to gluten free

Clark loves Italy and its food, but she says, “unfortunately it has not been kind to my stomach.”

At her doctor’s prompting, she went gluten free. “I jumped at the opportunity to feel better. While it is not perfect, being gluten free has helped me significantly to be able to keep up my training and racing schedule.”

She is on her third year of being an athlete for Honey Stinger, which makes gluten-free waffles, gels and chews for endurance athletes.

“I started as an ambassador and appreciated their support when I was just starting out in my career,” Clark says. “A year after, I was able to become a member of their elite team and their support helps fuel me throughout the year. I was drawn to Honey Stinger because I truly love their products and especially since becoming gluten free, I know I can rely on them for the best fueling. I know Honey Stinger works for me and I am grateful to have found a fantastic company.”

For now, Clark will continue sheltering in place and inspiring others with her daily treadmill marathons. As Italy works to halt the coronavirus, she offers advice to other her fellow Americans who are dealing with it pre-peak.

“My suggestion is to stay at home as much as you possibly can,” she says. “Limit trips to stores and limit contact with anyone but the people you live with. Italy had to implement very drastic measures by shutting everything down, but it is working. If the U.S. can follow Italy’s footsteps, I think it will go a long way to helping control the virus.”

Speed drill

Name: Alyssa Clark

Hometown: Bennington, Vt.

Number of years running: Officially five but unofficially since I was about 10, so 16 years :).

How many miles a week do you typically run: Around 85 to 95 miles a week.

Point of pride: Loving every step of my journey and sharing this love with others.

Favorite race distance: Anything 100K+ and the more technical the better!

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Bananas are one of my favorite foods pre-race and of course Honey Stinger gluten free honey or caramel waffles during :).

Favorite piece of gear: My Ferrino 12L Waterproof pack, it's the perfect size for long distance adventures.

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Till It Hurts by Yellow Claw.

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Brave, not perfect.”

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

Instagram: theory_in_motion

Facebook: Alyssa Clark


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